Should You Take Melatonin to Help You Sleep?
The hormone supplement can be effective for certain sleep problems, but not others
Suzanne Bertisch used to take melatonin supplements now and then to help her get to sleep when transitioning from night-shift to day-shift work or to combat jet lag. For anyone considering melatonin as a remedy for sleeping problems, she advises such “strategic” use of the hormone, and cautions that it is not a cure-all for sleep issues.
Bertisch should know. She’s a medical doctor, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and director of behavioral sleep medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Melatonin can be helpful in certain cases, such as time-zone transitions, for people who stay up late on weekends but need to get back on track for Monday morning, or for individuals whose internal clocks are otherwise out of sync with the demands of modern society, Bertisch explains. It is not recommended for chronic insomnia, however.
How melatonin works
Melatonin is produced naturally by the brain’s pineal gland and also, in lesser amounts, in the retina. The hormone helps regulate your internal clock, a daily cycle known as circadian rhythm. The sun serves as the primary on/off switch for this body clock: Darkness triggers the production of melatonin to start the process of making you sleepy; daylight throttles the production to keep you awake and alert.
If you disrupt this cycle — say, by working the night shift or sequestering yourself inside all day amid typical home or office lighting — your brain and body get royally confused. Some people, namely night owls, are naturally off-cycle.
Melatonin supplements can help fix a “body clock issue” by acting as a signal to the brain that it is indeed night. “It’s like a little push,” Bertisch says.
In a phone interview, I asked Bertisch about my wife, who typically sleeps well but is a total night owl, often coming to bed hours after I’m well zonked. “She’s the perfect candidate,” Bertisch says. “If she wanted to go to bed earlier, she’s someone who I could see would benefit from it.”